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Alexandra Lay

On 7 October 2017 I had the privilege of travelling to Belgium with nine other students who had won the Ministry of Education’s Battle of Passchendaele Competition.

The brief was to create a digital resource for Yr 7-10 students to learn about New Zealand’s darkest day: the Battle of Passchendaele. I decided to design an interactive website which would be accessible and engaging for younger students and included a map to navigate through the events of 12 October 1917.

The prize was a whirlwind 10 days in France, Belgium and The Netherlands during which we attended official commemorations, visited Commonwealth cemeteries and war museums. I found the sunset service at Polygon Wood particularly moving. It comprised a dramatic narration set to poignant music, which told the story of a New Zealand soldier leaving for war, dying in battle and his family being notified of the heartbreaking news.

Although I enjoyed reading and researching about Passchendaele, visiting the actual sites was deeply affecting. In the autumn of 1917, the weather conditions in Europe were the worst on record. It’s hard to imagine looking at the area now, but the combination of wet weather and heavy artillery shelling turned the low lying farmland of Flanders into a nightmarish swamp. It was in these conditions that the New Zealanders were tasked with taking the town of Passchendaele on 12 October. The campaign was rushed, poorly planned and ended in the massacre of over 850 New Zealand soldiers.

The sheer scale of the casualties is still as shocking now as it must have been then. The senseless waste of young lives is underscored as one stands in a cemetery like Tyne Cot surrounded by hundreds of graves and the names of thousands more. For each of those names, there were so many more families, friends and communities who were affected – the extent of the devastation and immeasurable impact of the Third Ypres campaign really struck me.

The trip was an incredible experience and I was honoured to represent my school and, foremost, my country at the centenary commemorations. I would really encourage anyone visiting Europe to take time to visit this significant historical area.

Link to website: www.discoverpasschendaele.com

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